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10 Lessons I Learned from Running 10 Marathons

Jess Underhill

When I first started running, I fell in love with the way it made me feel. The pavement was a sanctuary I would visit daily to find peace. Running helped me find the best version of myself. Out on the roads, I learned to feel good about myself for the first time in my life. All my free time was spent chasing my next runner's high. I was officially addicted, so I continued to run.

Despite my obsession with the sport, running a marathon, let alone 10, just wasn't on my radar. That all changed after listening to a colleague tell stories about running Big Sur and the New York City Marathon. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was being lured into the world of marathons one story at a time. In December of that year, I crossed the finish line of my very first marathon, the Rocket City Marathon in Huntsville, Alabama—and it changed my life.

Since then, I've crossed the finish line of nine more marathons, and I wouldn't be the person I am today if I hadn't run these races. So, I'm sharing the 10 lessons I learned from running 10 marathons. I hope you'll find them useful, whether you ever run 26.2 miles or not. (Related: 26.2 Mistakes I Made During My First Marathon So You Don't Have To)

1. Try something new even if it scares you. (Rocket City Marathon)

The idea of running 26.2 miles seemed impossible to me at first. How could I ever be prepared to run that far? I had this idea in my head about what a "real runner" was, and "real runners" had a certain look that I just didn't have. But I committed to running a marathon, so I showed up at the start line scared and a little underprepared. It wasn't until I saw the finish line in view that I actually realized I was going to do it. I was going to complete a marathon. It turns out there is no such thing as looking like a "real runner"—I was a marathoner. I was a real runner.

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2. Be open to anything. (New York City Marathon)

The year I moved to New York City from Nashville, Tennessee, I gambled and entered the NYC Marathon lottery and guess what? I got in! The odds of getting into the race through the lottery are really slim, so I knew this was meant to be. Whether I was ready or not, I was going to run that race.

3. It's okay to pick an easier route. (Chicago Marathon)

The biggest difference between the New York City Marathon and the Chicago Marathon is the elevation. While I had the experience of a lifetime in New York, I wasn't prepared for the hills on the course, which is probably why I ran this race 30 minutes slower than my very first marathon. The following year I decided to register for the Chicago Marathon because it is a much easier course. Choosing to travel to run a flat route instead of staying to run NYC again made me feel a bit like I was wimping out, but running the flat route in Chicago was glorious. Not only did I run the race 30 minutes faster than I ran the New York City Marathon, but I felt so good the entire race that it almost felt—dare I say—easy.

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4. It might not always be fun. (Richmond Marathon)

My desire to quit mid-race during the Richmon Marathon was stronger than my desire to reach the finish line. I wasn't going to achieve my time goal and I wasn't having fun. I knew I would regret calling it quits, so despite feeling miserable, I bargained with myself to just keep moving forward until I reached the finish line—even if that meant walking. The thing I'm most proud of about this race is that I didn't give up. I didn't finish the way I had imagined and hoped for, but hey, I finished.

5. You didn't fail just because you didn't PR. (Rock 'n' Roll San Diego Marathon)

After my disappointment in Richmond, it was a struggle not to give up on my goal of qualifying for the Boston Marathon, but I knew I'd regret it later if I did. So, instead of wallowing in my disappointing run in Richmond, I examined my experience and figured out why I was struggling—it was more about my mental strategy than my physical fitness (I wrote more about mental training here). I made some big changes and started training my brain as much as I trained my legs. And it paid off because I finally qualified for the Boston Marathon.

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6. Helping someone else achieve their goal is just as fulfilling as reaching your own. (New York City Marathon)

I think I had more fun running the New York City Marathon the second time than I did the first. A friend was running the race as her first marathon and was struggling a bit with her training, so I volunteered to run the race with her. My face hurt from smiling so much. Getting to share this moment with my friend was priceless. Be generous with your time and don't hesitate to lend a hand.

7. Don't forget to look up. (Los Angeles Marathon)

Did you know it's possible to run from Dodger Stadium to Santa Monica and miss seeing the Hollywood sign and nearly every other tourist attraction along the route? It is. I ran the LA Marathon without looking up and missed seeing an entire city. It was my first time in LA, but because I prioritized getting to the next mile marker above looking around, I basically missed the entire LA experience. Such a shame. So, while it's important to pay attention to what your body is trying to tell you (Slow down! Drink water!), that doesn't mean you can't take time to enjoy the scenery. As Ferris Bueller said, "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."

8. Take time to celebrate your victories. (Boston Marathon)

For as long as I had been a runner, I had dreamed of running the Boston Marathon. Qualifying to run this race was one of my proudest moments. As such, I ran this race as if the entire thing were one massive celebration. I took my time on the course and didn't want the race to end. I high-fived so many people on the route I thought I injured my shoulder. I went there to celebrate and I did. I had the time of my life. Huge wins don't happen every day, but when they do, celebrate like it's your last day on earth and accept every high-five that comes your way.

9. You are not superwoman. (Chicago Marathon)

Take a break when you need to, and learn how to admit defeat before you completely break down. The week before this race, I got the flu. I didn't leave my house for two days. My work schedule was insane. I had been working through every weekend from June to October without a vacation or day off, so it's no surprise I got sick. Being the stubborn person that I am, I headed to Chicago to run the race, naively thinking I could still hit my time goal. Instead of running a personal record (PR), I PR'ed in porta-potty stops. I had no business running a marathon that day. I should have admitted defeat before I even boarded the plane.

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10. Running and race-day goals aren't everything (Philadelphia Marathon)

With sustained winds of 25 mph and gusts of up to 45 mph, the race in Philly had conditions like I'd never experienced. I tried to talk myself through it by looking ahead for the next turn. The wind never let up or changed directions, but I didn't care that all my time spent training had been blown away. The week before the race I got some news that made me realize my running goals weren't that important. Running is great, but there's a lot more to love in life that has nothing to do with sneakers, PRs, or finish lines.

 
 

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